Creating Connections at the Okanagan Environmental Leadership Camp

By Susannah McCandless, Global Diversity Foundation International Programme Director

As I sit rocking my infant daughter to sleep and reflecting on my time at the recent Okanagan Environmental Leadership Camp, the most recent convening of this Global Environments Network, I find it rich with lessons. It is difficult to capture in words all I learned about transformation through reconnection to self, family, community and territory during the week. IndigenEYEZ facilitators and the Upper Nicola Band of Syilx welcomed us onto unceded Okanagan territory in the Northwest of Turtle Island.

From 10-17 June, Global Diversity Foundation partnered with the amazing Okanagan-based organization IndigenEYEZ to convene 30 Indigenous youth ages 18-30 with skilled facilitators and artists in an unprecedented Indigenous Regional Academy. Our purpose? To build leadership through these processes of reconnection. To engage with and process intergenerational trauma and healing, of bodies and territory. To reflect on the integral role of love in transforming ourselves and the Earth.

Ceremony before going out to sit on the land.

To dig deep into this work, we met with Syilx elders and culture bearers. We shared food, stories, and ceremony. We mapped both destructive impacts and places of abundance on Okanagan traditional territory on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, and explored potential collaborative strategies to respond to ongoing conflicts and destruction. We responded with joy and care to the work of a Syilx activist and knowledge holder who has located old stories of the important roles of two-spirited community members to help guide and ground the struggles of contemporary Indigenous youth living beyond the gender binary. To open ourselves to connection and healing, we explored through listening, and also, necessarily, through laughter, play, and creativity. Traditional and contemporary arts flowed and fused, on fabric, leather, and metal; in storytelling, music, beading, and shadow puppetry.

We grounded ourselves with focused time and learning on and from the land. We waited to be invited into relationship with this territory, many of us coming to nkwr’itkw, Glimpse Lake, for the first time. The standing ones–towering fir, spruce and pines, trembling aspen–held the space. Medicines surrounded us, and bloomed underfoot in low alpine meadows and forest clearing. Loons, eagles, ravens, beavers and a curious black bear greeted us from the edges of camp. Mosquitoes took their own offerings from our exposed skin. Thanks to our hosts, we ate and drank foods harvested from Okanagan territory: elk, venison, huckleberry and sxusm (foam berry).

Sending messages.

We received these gifts with gratitude and joy, and held them in the light of the many threats and challenges to Syilx territory, sovereignty and wellbeing. The Kinder Morgan pipeline sits like a black snake poised at the edge of Okanagan territory. The effects of clearcutting, mining, ranching, development, overhunting and -fishing are compounded by climate change. As Syilx knowledge-holder Rob Edwards of the Enowkin Centre shared, they are further exacerbated by disconnects among both Indigenous and settler users of the territory in understanding that rights and responsibilities sit in relationship. Interconnected with violence to lands and waters, participants engaged the legacies of residential schooling and other tools of cultural genocide. These remain present injuries as well as painful memories, disrupting families into addiction and state care, stealing language and stories, and separating people from relationship with the land and one another.

(Clockwise, from top left) (1) Sovereign. (2) Sharing skills over a bitterroot patch. (3) Ceremony before going out to sit on the land.

Back at home, I sit on Western Abenaki traditional territory with my now-sleeping daughter and a new awareness and commitment to all my relations. I am grateful for the ability and willingness of our facilitators, fellow participants and the land on which we met to hold the space for us to undertake the vital work to which they called us. I ask that the time we spent together at nkwr’itkw continue to teach those who were present, and invite you, the reader, to consider your own relationships to community and place in the light of this crucial work of reflection and reconnection.

Limlempt, thank you.

All photos credit Dana Wilson/Salish Sea Productions, with thanks to IndigenEYEZ. All errors are the author’s alone. A detailed report by lead facilitators of the Camp can be found here.